Probiotics are relatively new to veterinary medicine, despite being regularly used in human medicine and readily available over the counter in most pharmacies – clients are beginning to catch on, and it’s a growing trend to add probiotic supplements or foods such as yoghurt, kefir or raw milks to pets diets. Probiotics are incredibly useful in treating diarrhea and gastrointestinal upsets in pets (as in humans), and can support the immune system aswell as calm the mind when exposed to stressors. However, it’s vitally important to use a product that is safe, effective and beneficial to your pet.
Probiotics work by re-populating the gut microbiome with helpful microbes to restore the balance of good bacteria in the intestinal tract. The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the entire profile of your (or your pet’s) gut bacteria; it is unique to each individual, and can change or be influenced by probiotics aswell as sources of prebiotics. When the gut microbiome is unbalanced (more bad bacteria than good), we call this dysbiosis and this is often where we see gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting. Dysbiosis can be triggered by many things, but the most common is medications (antibiotics), stress, or changes in diet.
Probiotics work absolute wonders for pets, particularly those with chronic gastrointestinal conditions or even short term when a course of antibiotics has sent the microbiome into a tailspin, but how do we ensure we are getting the best results? I often see clients dolloping yoghurt onto their pet’s food, or pouring kefir over their kibble to provide a source of probiotics – but does this actually work? And how does it stack up against veterinary specific products?
First off, let’s look at what characteristics a probiotic needs to be effective?
1. Safety: tested and scientifically proven to ensure they do not cause worsening signs – as probiotics are usually used in already compromised patients, the probiotic must be gentle enough to not cause further GI distress.
2. Beneficial: the strains used in the probiotic should be specific to the host to ensure they work with their microbiome, and will provide a benefit to the host.
3. Stable: the live cultures must be stable and survive long enough to reach the intestinal tract where it’s required.
Taking this into account, we can apply this knowledge when making a decision about what type of probiotic to use and why they may or may not be suitable to improve the gut health of your pet.
Thinking about safety, human probiotics have not been tested in dogs and cats and they contain the most common strains found in humans, not animals. Human probiotics are usually not encapsulated and are designed to withstand the pH of the human stomach (6.0) to reach the small intestine. Dogs as an example, have a stomach pH of around 7.3 meaning human probiotics likely will not survive the passage through the stomach, therefore arriving dead at the intestine, providing little to no benefit to the host. The other thing to keep in mind, is the amounts of colony forming units (CFUs) of the probiotics in the product is possibly inadequate or excessive for the pet and thus more likely to create dysbiosis rather than offer a benefit. Human probiotics used to be recommended before we had veterinary specific products, as some of the strains may be in the canine microbiome, but now we have much better products and know that using a human product is largely a waste of money for the aforementioned reasons.
DIY probiotic sources:
Many clients believe adding a product that such as yoghurt, kefir, raw goat’s milk or other fermented food products, will provide a benefit to their pet due to the probiotics or live cultures that may be present in the food. Firstly, dogs and cats are lactose intolerant, and can experience a digestive upset with any product that contains milk, so products such as yoghurt or goat’s milk quite commonly can make the problem significantly worse, rather than improve the pet’s gut health. Next, yoghurt products that contain live cultures (similar to human probiotics) are usually in very small amounts and again are using the most common strains found in the human gut microbiome – not an animals. This is why I don’t recommend using these products if you want to improve your pet’s gut health. Kefir and fermented foods are also not a great option considering we cannot actually know the strains that occur in the product, or how many CFUs are contained within it. There is currently only one study that showed kefir may have some benefits for dogs, however the study had an incredibly small sample size (6 dogs) so must be taken with a grain of salt.
Products that are made specifically for the most common strains for cats and dogs, are now becoming mainstream and available from veterinary clinics around the world. They are tested for safety (many with multiple clinical trials), and to ensure they provide guaranteed CFUs of beneficial bacteria to the gut that can survive the harsh environments of the feline and canine stomach due to being encapsulated to ensure their stability. There are alot of products available now, they all work slightly different (some can be given with antibiotics, some have a washout period after finishing medications) so always read the packaging. Some examples of high quality veterinary probiotics that are evidence based and clinically trialled are FortiFlora, Protexin (also known as ProN8ture), Digesticare or Pro-Kolin. Each of these have a slightly different indication, so ask your vet or nutritionist which product they recommend for your pet and their unique situation.
Probiotics are a hot topic at the moment, but again always think about what is evidence based, safe and if a product is worth your money. Products that aren’t effective are most costly in the long run, especially if they have no effect or make the situation worse. Always ask your veterinarian or nutritionist for a recommendation on what product will work best for your pet and their situation; it’s a growing market, and many veterinary probiotics are specifically designed for certain conditions – they contain handpicked microbes that have benefits for targeted effects, such as anxiety relief or digestive upset.
Have you ever used probiotics with your pet? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!